The end of the parking meter.

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Oct. 19 2010 7:03 AM

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The end of the parking meter.

Check out a Magnum Photos gallery of parking and parking meters.

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Are such initiatives good for cities, and for drivers? At the very least, they're good for the private companies that run them. Whether by lack of competence or lack of political will, cities are highly ineffective in extracting money out of meters. But as the Chicago News Cooperative has reported, Chicago Parking Meters, the consortium that now (with Morgan Stanley as a controlling interest) runs the city's meters, collected $73 million in its first year of operation—more than three times the city's average take—by increasing enforcement and raising rates.

In theory, there is nothing wrong with this. Poor enforcement makes parking effectively cheaper, distorting the supply and demand of the parking market. And, as transportation planners like Shoup argue, much urban on-street parking is underpriced already—which is a problem, since drivers looking for cheap parking contribute greatly to congestion. Cheap parking costs us in time. But, apart from the widely held idea that Chicago gave away its 36,000 meters too cheaply ($1.15 billion for the 75-year term), there are other reasons to question the arrangement. For one, part of Shoup's idea of raising meter prices with a goal of 85 percent occupancy—thus ensuring turnover and reducing the time drivers spend cruising for spaces—is that increased revenues would be plowed back into improving the neighborhoods where the meters are found (what Shoup calls "parking benefit districts"). Other scholars such as David Hoyt suggests such revenues might even support "related public goods such as a modernized transportation system."

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But this prospect, Hoyt notes, "is entirely lost in the Morgan Stanley privatization deal. What could be a long-term revenue generator for a city in budgetary crisis and with an enormous backlog of deferred public transportation maintenance has been traded for a one-time fix in operating revenue." Rather than increased parking prices helping pay for better public transportation, the bank is banking on the lack of public transportation in its profit picture. As a Moody's analyst wrote, "public transportation is not convenient to areas of the parking system outside of the central business district, which are expected to generate the majority of revenues."

There are other problems, argues urban planner Aaron Renn, in the city locking up its parking policy for the next 75 years. Seventy-five years ago we did not have paid on-street parking; who knows what the parking future will bring? "Parking spots," writes Renn, "are the curb lane of your streets. Your streets are the primary public space in your city. They are intimately connected with everything that happens in the city." The deal, he argues, assigns a "property right interest in the biggest component of public space in the city to a private monopoly that doesn't have the public's best interests at heart. The city of Chicago has ceded a portion of its urban planning powers to a private company."

Of course, most people don't really pause to think of parking meters as integral to wider transportation issues, or even as public space. As planner Paul Barter, writing about Park(ing) Day, the now global project in which people commandeer parking spaces to display art, have a picnic, or pretty much do anything but park a car, observes, "I suspect that most people don't really think of 'feeding the parking meter' as some kind of rental payment for real-estate space. If motorists really did see it that way, it might be a lot easier for cities to bring in rational parking pricing policies."

But rationality often is left at the curb when it comes to paid parking—and the meters that enforce it. Barter contends that we see meter fees as yet another tax; in his novel Millennium People, J.G. Ballard, suggesting that "the bourgeoisie are the new proletariat," includes the vandalism of parking meters in his taxonomy of new class rage. And a onetime viewing of the show Parking Wars will confirm this sense of motorist persecution—and conversely, entitlement. "It's a controversy in every city," Andrew Dunn, the show's producer, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "People feel entitled to parking without paying. It's like free air."

In New York City and other places, parking meter "grace periods"—an extra five minutes for someone whose meter has expired—have been floated for lazy political gain. But such plans merely postpone and complicate the inevitable confrontation with the hapless traffic agent; not to mention that your five minutes of grace is everyone else's parking hell. And to quote Bike Snob: "Why do we—a people who are supposed to be the hardiest, savviest urbanites in the United States (if not the entire Western world)—need an extra five minutes to move our cars? … [W]e're so fast that they actually named a unit of time after us."

There is hope on the horizon, however: The eventual abolishment of the parking meter. I am not talking here about removing paid parking altogether as some cities, seemingly ignoring the lessons of the past, keep trying to do. (Eugene, Ore., recently removed parking meters and will go back to chalk-based enforcement, echoing that old refrain that parking meters drive away business; the city's parking manager observed, "we are counting on downtown businesses to police their own, as employee parking on street will make or break the program."Good luck with that.)

Rather, I'm talking about the advent of any number of new systems for paying for parking. There are, for example, pay-by-mobile-phone parking providers (for example, Parkmobile), which require drivers to put the code of a parking space into an app rather than coins into a meter. There are also even simpler "park and walk away" systems, like one being tested in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which essentially put the meter in one's car. No more curbside confrontations, no more vandals jamming things in slots, no more overpaying for time you did not use, no more tickets because you were a few minutes late, no more bothering the dry cleaner for quarters.

Now, pay your respects and go feed the meter.